Four decades ago, Israel learned that Uri Zohar, its best-known comedian, was abandoning bohemianism for the Haredi world. At that time, I was writing an article for the Jerusalem Post in which Zohar’s name appeared. A private postal service was about to close. Its boss — we’ll call him Haim — mentioned in passing in an interview that Zohar was one of his clients and a friend, which I noted in the article. A few weeks later, Haim, himself a Haredi, called me. He was exulting. The authorities had changed their minds and his service would not be closed. The article had done it, he said. He couldn’t thank me enough. “Is there anything I can do for you?” Anything.”
I was doing no one a favor and in truth this was a very boring article. But as Haim was talking, it occurred to me that there was something he could do for me. Him and no one else.
“Could you arrange for me to study the Talmud with Uri Zohar for half an hour?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure he would be okay with that, but I can ask him.”
“I won’t write about it,” I assured him. “I’m just interested personally, not as a journalist.”
“I’ll try,” he said.
The news that Zohar was leaving comedy for religion stunned me. He was, to me, a national treasure – funny, bawdy, hilarious. We lay people craved wild humor like his to brighten our lives – a diversion from all the bad actors who strutted around the political scene. It was as if Bob Hope – the American comedian who came to mind then – had abandoned his radio show and taken a vow of silence in a remote monastery, never to be heard from again.
Zohar’s move was a dissonance that baffled me. Was it real? A middle-aged man making a gesture like that? Why? Or was it a schtick, like Madonna’s hyped flirtation with the Kabbalah, a pathetic rush for publicity. If I could watch him study the Talmud up close, I thought, that might tell me something.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, I had attended Yeshiva Shlomo Kluger until 10th grade. Very few of my acquaintances stayed there, but at least I could read a page of the Talmud – even if I didn’t understand the meaning unless the rabbi explained it.
Two days after my request to Haim, the phone rang at my office. A low, vaguely familiar voice said, “Mr. Rabinovitch? This is Uri Zohar. I don’t remember him asking any questions, though his tone sounded like one – is this reporter just looking for the inside scoop? I hastened to assure him that I would not write an article on him, but that I would like to share a study session with him if possible.
He agreed for me to come the next morning at 10 a.m. to an address in Geula, a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem. Ground floor. Short staircase. Door on the right. He answered the doorbell himself. He had a beard, but the face was his. He led me into the living room where two men were seated at a table, a Talmud treatise open in front of each. One was a former artist, born again like Zohar, but his name was unknown to me. The other was Professor Haredi, a smart-looking young man. Zohar gestured to a seat next to his. He didn’t immediately offer me a volume, perhaps so as not to embarrass me if I couldn’t follow. I asked for one and he immediately took one from a shelf, opened it to the page they were studying and placed his finger on the line they were on. It took me right back to my yeshiva days when, it seemed, we constantly wondered what line we were on.
The topic, as far as I remember, was about someone finding a prayer book or other holy book on the Sabbath in a public area: can they pick it up and bring it to a private area, like his house, to save him from another desecration? Or not? Normally it is forbidden to wear even a handkerchief in a public space on the Sabbath.
The room overlooked an interior courtyard. At one point, the rabbi placed an object on the doorstep of the open courtyard to discuss the boundary between private and public spaces.
As the rabbi’s reading continued, Zohar and the other penitent offered questions and comments. I asked if I could participate. I was asked to do it and I did it. The give-and-takes were familiar, even amusing. I could have continued, but after a while I asked permission to go. Zohar escorted me to the door. As I started the short flight, I looked back. He was still at the ajar door, as if he was about to receive a question from me, I thought, about furthering my studies. Neither of us said anything and I continued through the front door. I already had the answer to the question that had brought me there; Much to my dismay, Uri Zohar wasn’t kidding about becoming Haredi. He had passed from the public space to the private space. He will remain there, barring scattered contact with lay people, until his death this month, aged 86.
Despite my assurances to Haim and Zohar himself that I would not write about the episode, I wrote about it. I felt that the conclusion of the article – that Zohar’s conversion was sincere, was not something he could object to. The publicity might even enhance his personal agenda if it aimed to encourage lay seekers to follow his path.
In deciding so, I may have inadvertently stumbled upon a riddle worthy of the Talmud. Although my promise to Haim and Uri Zohar not to write about the episode ended up being wrong, it wasn’t wrong when I did. It only became a lie afterwards. Is it less blatant than an intentional and direct lie? Or not?
Abraham Rabinovich is a historian and journalist who has published several books including “The Yom Kippur War”, “The Boats of Cherbourg” and “The Battle of Jerusalem”. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and The Christian Science Monitor. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as a reporter for Newsday and the Jerusalem Post.